Top Secret or Secret? Agencies could save big by choosing wisely

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Federal agencies lack consistent, clearly defined guidance for designating which positions require security clearances, the Government Accountability Office has found.

According to a new GAO report, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Office of Personnel Management have failed to adequately coordinate on deriving consistent designations of security clearance positions.

ODNI, charged with issuing guidance to agencies on how to designate security clearances, including Top Secret authorizations, has not required agencies to review and revise or validate existing federal civilian position classifications. Lacking guidance from ODNI, many agencies used an OPM tool.

The OPM audits revealed inconsistencies in position designations. For example, an OPM review of the sensitivity levels of 39 positions at the Defense Department and reached different conclusions than the department did about the appropriate level of clearance for 26 of them. The problems were due mostly to a lack of collaboration between OPM and ODNI on developing a tool for designating positions for security clearances.

“Without guidance from the DNI, and without collaboration between DNI and OPM in future revisions to the tool, executive branch agencies will continue to risk making security clearance determinations that are inconsistent or at improper levels,” GAO wrote.

GAO also found, in a review of clearances in Defense and Homeland Security departments, that although they were aware of the need to keep clearances to a minimum, agency officials did not always conduct necessary reviews to validate the security clearance requirements of existing positions.

Overdesignating positions that require clearances is costly, GAO wrote: In fiscal 2012, the base price for a Top Secret clearance is $4,005 per investigation. A regular security clearance is $260.

GAO conducted the study at the request of House Homeland Security Committee ranking member Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.

According to Thompson, the report demonstrates the potential for wasteful spending in conducting security clearance investigations: More than 4.8 million federal government and contractor employees held or were eligible for a security clearance as of 2011. OPM increased its cost to conduct background investigations for such clearances from $602 million to nearly $1.1 billion between fiscal 2005 and fiscal 2011.

“This report shows that the DNI and OPM need to do much more to provide guidance to agencies on security clearance hiring requirements,” Thompson said in a statement. “While demanding unnecessary clearances could lead to a waste of precious resources, it could also unfortunately be a signal of a less open government.”

GAO recommended that ODNI collaborate with the Office of Personnel Management on developing procedures that clearly define and modify position designation tools and require agencies to periodically evaluate federal civilian positions to validate or amend those requiring clearances. Both ODNI and OPM concurred with the watchdog’s recommendations in their responses to the report.

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